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Sometimes I’d try to calculate how long it was since I had last been touched: days, weeks. I’d catch myself holding hugs with friends longer than was socially acceptable in order to squeeze, quite literally, as much contact as I could from the interaction. Sometimes, on seeing a couple walking ahead of me on the street, arms entwined, bodies moving together casually, deliberately, I’d feel a pang — real, physical pain — in my chest.
There were days when I’d try to figure out how long it would take for someone to notice if I was murdered. Would my spin instructor miss me if I didn’t show up to my regular class? How many unanswered texts would convince my friends that I wasn’t just busy, but dead in a ditch? It was a joke, but only kind of.
I read ludicrous articles claiming that after a year of celibacy, the body underwent a process called “revirginization.” Twelve sex-free months would make me a born-again virgin, and the clock was counting down.
The rest of the time, though, I was planning a wedding. I pondered bridesmaids’ dresses. I considered color schemes on Pinterest. I had conversations with friends about the pros and cons of buffets versus sit-down meals, of holding the ceremony and reception in the same place or organizing transport between two different venues. I researched what legal steps were necessary for a couple, one Brit and one American, to live in the same country after their marriage.
I was alone and in a committed relationship. Somehow, those things were not mutually exclusive. I was in love with somebody who was not there, who for the most part existed only as a talking head in a box on the screen of my computer. I lived in London, he lived in Boston, and sometimes I felt so lonely it was hard to breathe.
We met in graduate school in the United States. I had lusted after him silently from across the classroom. I read the short stories he presented to our fiction workshop with quiet fervor, finding each sentence a work of subtle brilliance, each of his protagonists a beloved cipher for his author. While we were students, our relationship never progressed beyond critiques of each other’s work and superficial discussions in the pub after class about movies and music we liked. I fell in love regardless, using details from his fiction to fill the gaps in my knowledge about who he was.
Falling in love with someone who isn’t there takes dedication and imagination.
It wasn’t until we’d graduated that we got together: He was living in Paris, and I had moved home to London. We spent a few months as regulars on the Eurostar, taking turns to visit each other. Then he had to go back to Boston, and I stayed put in the UK. He was working; I was getting my PhD. From the beginning, our relationship was conducted at long range. Heady days of togetherness punctuated stretches of solitude. I was in a relationship with a man. I was in a relationship with a patchwork of memories of, aspirations for, and fantasies about a man. I was in a relationship with Skype.
Meanwhile, I spent my days in the rare-books reading room of the British Library, developing a relationship of a different kind. I was writing my dissertation on 19th-century author Elizabeth Gaskell, and page by page, word by word, I was building a picture of this distant, long-dead woman who wrote earnest novels about working people in the north of England, but who also loved travel, sherry, cats, parties, gossip, strawberries, and cream. I was interested in the ways in which nostalgia and distance informed Gaskell’s writing, particularly her yearning for Rome, where she spent three happy months in 1857 and met an American writer called Charles Eliot Norton.
Their transatlantic correspondence, while not comprising self-declared love letters, was nonetheless full of reaching and lusting and yearning. They read each other hungrily, and imagined each other, and missed each other: “I wish you could come over again,” Mrs. Gaskell wrote to Mr. Norton, in various iterations, repeatedly. He responded with fantasy: “I revisit in imagination the places to which we went together, […] I hear your words, & altogether I am passing a very delightful morning with you in Rome.”
After spending hours in the reading room with these letters, I’d go home and read messages from my boyfriend. Often, we’d end up typing to each other over Skype rather than speaking. I found this odd, even at the time, but it was easier somehow: There was less chance for audio glitches to derail the conversation, and I could be clear, could say exactly what I wanted. Mrs. Gaskell had the opposite problem, yearning to talk to Mr. Norton: “I have constantly long stories I should like to tell you, but which are too long and too difficult to write,” she complained. But given the option, I preferred typing, which not only felt calmer and more precise in the moment but also created a record of our conversations that I could read through afterward, when I was alone and untouched and missing him.
I became a full-time reader, the most avid and devoted of literary critics. I scrutinized Gaskell’s syntax, explored the context and subtext of her words, and then I’d go home a do exactly the same with my partner, analyzing his punctuation, his vocabulary, the rhythm of his sentences. Mrs. Gaskell dreamed of setting sail for America to see Mr. Norton, “but, I always pass into such a cold thick damp fog, on leaving the river at Liverpool that I never get over to you.” My boyfriend in Boston typed to me that he had dreamed about missing flight after flight to London until he decided to sail there instead. Reading both of them, the dead Victorian writer and the living American one, I pulled their words apart adoringly, searching for clues about who they really were.
Falling in love with someone who isn’t there takes dedication and imagination. It relies on the perfect amount of source information: plentiful enough to build a basic impression and provide a few colorful details yet scant enough to allow the imagination to do its best work. Because, after all, nature abhors a vacuum, and the yearning mind abhors distance, silence, insufficient data. Absence is a creative prompt. Fantasies rush in to fill the empty space, to conjure a towering, perfect caricature of the object of affection. The imagined lover is present where the real one is absent. The imagined lover can promise what the real one cannot. The imagined lover is irreproachable. My American boyfriend was capable, and wise, and infinitely talented. Mrs. Gaskell was dazzling, brilliant, kind.
Reality was the disappointing twin of what I imagined and hoped and longed for. Charles Eliot Norton knew this all too well; to Elizabeth Gaskell he wrote, “The contrast between the realities of the imagination & the actualities of everyday life are striking.” They struck me hard. In the stretches of time between my visits to Boston, I was so lonely that I started fostering cats from a nearby shelter just to create some movement in my empty apartment. A friend in the United States saw my Instagram feed and wrote to me, “How many cats do you have at your place right now?” When I told him six, he said, “Nell, that is too many cats.” I was becoming the kind of solitary woman people make cruel jokes about.
It will come as no surprise, of course, that my relationship did not work out. Denial had third-wheeled us from the start. The man in Boston was not the person I had constructed in his absence via my analysis of his written messages. He was not the person I had pieced together from characters in his fiction. He was a real human being with a lot on his plate, who could not commit to being in a long-distance relationship right now, who needed to focus on his own life, wanted to sort out his career, wasn’t blaming me for any of it, just needed to be by himself. Which was his way of explaining his realization that I was not the person he had imagined, that I was too real, too flawed, too needy, compared to his ideal. Our visions of each other were no more real than the wedding which would not, now, take place.
“We never thought it would be so long, did we, when we parted?” Mrs. Gaskell wrote to Mr. Norton. They thought they’d see each other soon, and then months went by, and then years, and the anticipated meeting never came.
Reality was the disappointing twin of what I imagined and hoped and longed for.
How do you miss someone who was never there to begin with? The breakup did not create a sudden absence so much as a reformulation of preexisting absence. It made my head spin. My loneliness became concrete, heavy. I cried a lot. I fostered more cats. And then I learned to take solace in the relationship I had built in parallel with my long-distance love affair. I turned to Mrs. Gaskell.
Because Mrs. Gaskell, my Mrs. Gaskell, imagined by me, in response to my reading of her reading, my longing and yearning for her longing and yearning, would never leave me. Her incorporeality made her, conversely, more real. There was no chance that this person I knew and loved and had spent so many hours with would walk away, become someone else. She was forever absent, and therefore here to stay. Her novels were consoling, her letters ebullient, her short stories odd and distracting and seductive. Reeling from heartbreak, I fell back into this beloved safety net, which was intangible and unshakeable all at once. This is the utter joy of reading, of really reading, not just typing back and forth on Skype: It builds an unbreakable, permanent relationship stronger than one between any two living people, strong enough to reach across centuries, stronger than the paper the words are printed on.
You are imagining me right now, after all — to help, I’m sitting in a coffee shop around the corner from my flat; there’s a woman here trying to get her child to drink kombucha, there are two thirtysomething men discussing the next episode of their podcast, you get the idea — and the person you’re imagining is both me and, of course, not me in the least. But the person you’re picturing is present to you nonetheless, offering a hand as real and alive as words can make it, and will never let you down, not once, not ever, just so long as we never really meet.